March 6, 2016   Margaret Pommert

Hands up if you’ve ever abandoned a sinking boat.

Safety at Sea sounds like an important topic for a seminar. But also… kind of vague, right? So if you’ve never been to one, you’d probably wonder what you’d get out of it that you couldn’t get from the usual sources: friends, magazines, learn-to-sail programs, websites, etc.

I had the same question before attending my first US Sailing Safety at Sea (SaS) seminar 13 years ago. Frankly, I wasn’t sure it was going to be worth the time or the money.  Not only was it very worthwhile, it lit a spark of interest in seamanship and safety at sea advocacy in me that continued and grew. I participated in the class again in early March of 2016. I just wanted to acknowledge my bias – I like this stuff and think it’s really important. Nonetheless, here’s my perspective:

What is the Safety at Sea (SaS) seminar? Why does it exist?

Safety has been a concern as long as humans have gone to sea. But some high profile incidents in races a few decades ago provided the impetus to improve the level of training for offshore racers. World Sailing (formerly ISAF) requires or recommends SaS training for 30% of crew in certain races, including Vic-Maui, Pacific Cup, and Oregon Offshore. The classes aren’t just for offshore racers, however, they are designed to be appropriate for a wide range of boats and sailors: near shore racers, cruisers, catamarans, even power boats.

US Sailing certifies the curriculum and provides qualified moderators who are all part of the US Sailing Safety at Sea committee, ensuring consistency and quality of the information. Each seminar is tailored to the conditions and challenges of the host organization’s sailing area. As the host organization for this seminar, the Sailing Foundation worked with the US Sailing moderator, Bruce Brown, ensuring appropriate emphasis on PNW risks such as cold water immersion and hypothermia. Individual instructors include some of the top names in sailing and safety.

What topics were covered?

  • Hands-on sessions on life jackets and life rafts in the water
  • Personal Safety Gear
  • Man Overboard
  • Emergency Communications
  • Search and Rescue
  • Heavy Weather
  • Storm Sails
  • Crew Health
  • Hypothermia
  • Jury Rigging and Repair
  • Fire Precautions
  • Lending Assistance
  • Life Rafts
  • Signals
  • There was also an optional free on-the-water Lifesling® practice offered on Monday after the seminar.

Who participated in the SaS classes?

There was an range in background among the participants. There were many life-long sailors and highly experienced offshore racers. A sample cross-section of other participants included:

  • Local J/105 racer and sailing instructor, Lisa Cole.
  • Kristen Pederson and Elena Losey (team KELP), a female double handed team competing in the first leg of the Race to Alaska this year, and targeting the entire R2AK next year.
  • Glen Mulkey, who has a lot of OPB (Other People’s Boats) cruising experience and hopes to buy his own boat and go cruising with his wife.
  • Mark Aberle, a very active Pacific Northwest cruiser.
  • Tom Muir, Seattle Sailing Club fleet manager and instructor.
  • Leah Applewhite, SaS volunteer and Lifesling training participant. She’s a newer sailor whose husband-to-be owns a 40’ Catalina they’ll use for local cruising.

What’s the value in participating in a SaS seminar?

In talking to this sample of participants, stories and lessons learned from those that have ‘been there’ were tremendously insightful and motivating.

There was a huge amount of experience in the room, in the audience as well as among the instructors. The first morning, those who had fallen overboard were asked to raise their hand. Then, those that had actually had to abandon a sinking boat and climb into a life raft. Several raised their hands. A couple of them shared their stories.

Glen commented afterwards “When an average looking guy sitting next to me raised his hand, it sent a shiver down my spine. But it was good, because it brought what we were talking about from something abstract to something real.”

At the same time, the instructors showed statistics illustrating that sailing is a relatively safe sport.

Leah commented, “As a newer sailor, I had some apprehensions about cruising double-handed on my fiancé’s boat. But driving the boat in the Lifesling workshop let me prove to myself that I can learn to do this… and I can’t wait to go practice on our boat!”

Real-life insight into safety equipment

Safety equipment is always evolving, so it can be hard to know what’s available and compare options. If you don’t spend a lot of time studying USCG and SOLAS safety requirements, they are often confusing.

Kristen Pederson; “I’d kind of assumed that ‘USCG approved’ meant that we were buying the best safety equipment. But the discussion of SOLAS vs USCG standards made me re-think that. For example, we’d just bought the standard USCG approved flares for our boat. But after the live demo comparing the smoke, USCG approved, SOLAS approved, and the new electronic flare we’re going to buy some different ones”


Flare comparisons proved very enlightening. Shown here left to right: smoke, SOLAS, USCG, and the new electronic flare in the foreground which, though not as bright as the others, has some good attributes.

After the pool session, we all realized that the capacity rating for life rafts resulted in sardine-like packing, with no room left for gear or supplies.  Several boat owners planning to buy life rafts were thankful to realize this before they made the investment.

While the class wasn’t cheap, several sailors I spoke to discussed equipment that the course helped them realize wouldn’t be best suited to their needs, helping them avoid wasted money. As Glen said, “There’s always more equipment I could buy. But this gave me a much better idea of the best places to spend my money.”

The ‘dream team’ of SaS instructors for the PNW

  • We all agreed it would be hard to imagine a more qualified team of instructors than this course had, which included:
  • Bruce Brown, national life raft and safety equipment expert, US Sailing certified Safety at Sea moderator.
  • Bob Schoonmaker, VP of Safety at Sea for the Sailing Foundation with in-depth knowledge of the Pacific Northwest’s unique safety issues.
  • Carol Hasse, sailmaker, expert in sails for cruising and heavy weather sailing.
  • Brad Baker, raced nine Vic-Maui races, winning the Navigator’s award for five of them, expert in offshore weather routing in our area.
  • Ryan Helling and Doug Fryer from the Sailing Foundation, experts in the Lifesling (Doug helped invent it).
  • Dr. Ken Falbert, avid sailor, maritime medical expert, avid sailor… and very prone to seasickness. Expert on seasickness prevention!

Practice, with less danger and cost to those practicing

When discussing crew overboard techniques, the idea of live-person-in-the-water practice often comes up. But especially in the cold waters of Puget Sound, putting a person in the water even for practice has significant risks. For the on-the-water Lifesling practice, Bob Schoonmaker volunteered to give us a ‘real’ MoB victim for us to practice with, while at the same time modeling and testing out a ‘Gumby’ type immersion survival suit.

As part of the training, I had a chance to pull the cord to inflate a six person life raft and climb inside one with five other people in the controlled environment of a swimming pool with a lifeguard. This was safer than practicing with a life raft off of someone’s boat in an open seaway. And it was much cheaper and less hassle than having to take an inflated life raft in for repacking!

I’d never pulled myself into a life raft before. It’s great to know that I can be the first person to pull myself in, without any assistance from inside the raft. Pulling others in after me was like a big, wet game of twister as we all ended up in a pile on the floor of the life raft.


Six sardines playing twister in a life raft.

Common reference and basis for safety discussions with crewmates

For crews that came to the training together, one of the biggest benefits they talked about was that the seminar sparked very important discussions on safety and equipment that they might not have otherwise had….before an emergency! Tom commented on the Lifesling hoisting practice, “My girlfriend Carol and I learned a lot from this practice, and are already talking about how we would do it on my boat (an Andrews 53)”

Catalyst for action

We all talk about the safety preparations we’re going to do one day, the things we’re going to practice. But somehow most of it gets put off. Everyone I talked to agreed that there were concrete actions they were going to take right after this course, and many of them are already done. The next time you see me on the water, you’ll notice the leg straps on my life jacket.  I’ve actually had them for a while, but never got around to attaching them. It was the motivation of “I know I’m going into the water today” for the pool practice that made me actually put them on my life jacket, where they will stay. Now I’m out to start a fashion trend on Puget Sound!


The Lifesling in practice.

What if you missed the 2016 Safety at Sea Seminar?

It’s only offered once every other year in the Seattle area, timed to coincide with the biennial Vic-Maui and Pacific Cup sailboat races. While offshore racers knew about the class, many others who would benefit from it might not have heard about it, including cruisers, power boaters, inshore racers and commercial fishermen.

In order to keep a high quality of the interaction with the experts instructors, the size of each session was limited to 25 people, or 125 total. As a result, the event sold out, so not everyone who wanted to was able to attend. Tickets were $185 for Saturday only, and $335 for both days. The vast majority of participants agreed the class was well worth it.

If you weren’t able to make the SaS seminar this spring, but are interested in this type of training, here are some options you may want to consider:

  • Look for the class in the Seattle area in 2018
  • There will probably be a US Sailing Offshore Seminar with hands-on training held in Portland next winter.
  • US Sailing has just introduced a pilot of online training offerings for “Coastal” Safety at Sea and a “hands-on online supplement” to an offshore hands-on seminar.
  • There are SaS courses offered  with a different certifying body in Vancouver and Victoria, which fulfill the ISAF and Sail Canada  requirements for long distance races.
  • The Sailing Foundation will offer free Lifesling classroom and dockside training on May 13 at Corinthian Yacht Club as part of their Friday Social programs.

A BIG thank you goes out to Bob Schoonmaker and the Sailing Foundation for organizing this event, to Bruce Brown of the US Sailing Safety at Sea Committee for acting as moderator, to the local expert instructors, and to the large team of volunteers that made the whole event so successful!

Margaret Pommert recently joined the board of directors of the Sailing Foundation; she’ll be part of the volunteer team organizing future Lifesling and Safety at Sea seminars in the Pacific Northwest.